The inventor of the World Wide Web has warned that online abuse “silences women and deprives the world of their opinions and ideas”.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee made his remarks in an open letter to mark the 31st anniversary of the creation of the internet.
It comes as new research from his Web Foundation and the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts found that 52% of young women and girls have experienced online abuse, and 87% of girls think the problem is getting worse.
“Such abuse forces women out of jobs and causes girls to skip school, it damages relationships and leads to tremendous distress,” Sir Tim said.
“Relentless harassment silences women and deprives the world of their opinions and ideas, with female journalists and politicians pushed off social media and bullied out of office.
“And it risks the tremendous opportunities that digital technology offers.
“A young woman from a technology skills centre I visited in Nigeria runs a catering business on social media.
“The same platform that allows her to reach customers also exposes her to daily bombardment of sexual harassment from strangers.”
He has called for new laws to better regulate abuse online, and encouraged web users to be “active bystanders” and speak up when they see abuse of women and girls online.
Emily Sharpe, director of policy at the Web Foundation, said: “The crisis facing women and girls online is one of global proportions.
“We need a world where women can go online without being harassed, where they can run for office without fear of misogynist abuse, and where women can apply for jobs knowing algorithms will judge them on their skills rather than their gender.
The father of Molly Russell has welcomed the warning by Sir Tim.
The 14-year-old schoolgirl took her own life in 2017 after viewing harmful images on Instagram.
Ian Russell has urged everyone to work together to make the web a safer place, saying “cases like Molly’s show that this really can be a matter of life and death”.
“The tech platforms should stop prioritising profit over the removal of online harms and they should share anonymised data so academics can better understand the links between mental ill-health and online usage.
“Individuals must use the web responsibly and also not be silent bystanders, instead reporting harmful content every time it is encountered.
“Most of all, everyone needs to work together to mend the web if it is to be the force for good it was designed to be.
“That’s why the Molly Rose Foundation is fully supporting Sir Tim and the Web Foundation’s call that the web must work for everyone.”
The NSPCC also supported Sir Tim’s open letter, saying his intervention should make people “sit up and take notice”.
“Young women and girls must be able to use the internet free from the fear of sexual abuse and harassment,” said Andy Burrows, head of child safety online policy at the charity.”
:: Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email email@example.com in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.